Anatinae: Dabbling Ducks

The Anatinae is a subfamily of the family Anatidae (swans, geese, and ducks).

Its surviving members are the dabbling ducks, which feed mainly at the surface rather than by diving.

The other members of the Anatinae are the extinct moa-nalos, a young but highly apomorphic lineage derived from the dabbling ducks.

There has been much debate about the dabbling ducks’ systematical status and what ducks belong to the Anatinae. As understood here, the subfamily contains only the dabbling ducks and their close relatives, the extinct moa-nalos.

Alternatively, the Anatinae are considered to include most “ducks” and the dabbling ducks form a tribe Anatini within these. The classification as presented here more appropriately reflects the remaining uncertainty about the interrelationships of the major lineages of Anatidae (waterfowl).

Brazilian Duck or Brazilian Teal (Amazonetta brasiliensis)

Male Northern Shoveler


Anas formosa


The dabbling duck group, of worldwide distribution, was delimited in a 1986 study to include 8 genera and some 50-60 living species.

However, Salvadori’s Teal is almost certainly closely related to the Pink-eared Duck, and other genera are likewise of unresolved affiliation. The peculiar Marbled Duck, formerly tentatively assigned to the dabbling ducks, is actually a diving duck or even a distinct subfamily.

This group of ducks is so named because its members feed mainly on vegetable matter by upending on the water surface, or grazing, and only rarely dive. These are mostly gregarious ducks of freshwater or estuaries.

These birds are strong fliers and northern species are highly migratory. Compared to other types of ducks, their legs are placed more towards the center of their bodies. They walk well on land, and some species feed terrestrially.

Puddle ducks generally feed on the surface of the water or feed on very shallow bottoms. They are not equipped to dive down several feet like their diving counterparts. The most predominant difference between puddle ducks and divers is the size of the feet.

Puddle duck’s feet are generally smaller because they do not need the extra propulsion to dive for their forage.

Another distinguishing characteristic of puddle ducks when compared to diving ducks is the way in which they take flight when spooked or are on the move.

Puddle ducks spring straight up from the water and diving ducks need to gain momentum to take off, so they must run across the water a short distance to gain flight.

Cape Teal

History of Classification

Traditionally, most ducks were assigned to either the shelducks, the perching ducks, or the dabbling and diving ducks; the latter two were presumed to make up the Anatinae. However, the perching ducks turned out to be a paraphyletic assemblage of various tropical waterfowl that simply had happened to evolve the ability to perch well in their forested habitat. Several of these, such as the Brazilian Duck, were subsequently assigned to the Anatinae.

As for the diving ducks, mtDNA cytochrome b and NADH dehydrogenase subunit 2 sequence data indicate that they are fairly distant from the dabbling ducks, the morphological similarities being due to convergent evolution.

In addition, the genus Anas as traditionally defined is not monophyletic; several South American species belong to a distinct clade which would include the Tachyeres steamer-ducks, and other species such as the Baikal Teal should also be considered distinct. See the genus article for more on this subject.

Maned Duck


The following genera are (with one exception) unequivocal dabbling ducks:

The 3 known genera and 4 known species of moa-nalos went extinct around 1000 AD. They formerly occurred on the Hawaiian Islands and were derived from dabbling ducks, possibly even a close ancestor of the mallard:

  • Chelychelynechen
  • Thambetochen
  • Ptaiochen

Ringed Teal

Subfossil remains of a small, flightless dabbling duck have been recovered on Rota in the Mariana Islands. These cannot be assigned to a known genus, but probably are closest to Anas. A most bizarre ducklike fowl has been found on the Hawaiian island of Kaua?

Due to its unique apomorphies (it seems to have had small eyes high and far back on its head) the placement of this anatid is likewise unresolved; only dabbling ducks and true geese are with certainty known to have colonized the Hawaiian chain.

Frequently placed into the Anatinae are these genera, whose relationships must be considered uncertain at present:

On the other hand, the following genera, usually considered to belong to the Tadorninae, may actually be dabbling ducks:

Relevant Resources

Duck InformationIndex of Duck SpeciesPhotos of the Different Duck Species for Identification
Chestnut Teal (Anas castanea)
Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera)
Spectacled or Bronze-winged Duck head detail
Male preening

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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